Liehards: On Political Hypocrisy
One of the odder consequences of the tangle of distortions, deceptions and fabrications that prepared the way for the US declaration of war on Iraq in 2003 has been a renewed scrutiny of the many flavors and uses of mendacity in political life. Some of these investigations have been narrowly focused on enumerating the many damaging fibs perpetrated by President George W. Bush and his foreign policy team to manufacture public consent for a war they knew to be a hard sell on evidence alone. But others have taken the form of reflections on lying itself—as much to parse its varied modern guises as to reconsider its effects. A few years ago, television comedian Stephen Colbert began offering late-night cable audiences amusing, bitter lessons in “truthiness,” his term for a gut feeling about what constitutes truth in the absence of any real logic or proof. As Martin Jay points out in his erudite The Virtues of Mendacity, Colbert’s neologism was intended to capture the particular spirit of our times. In his brief Why Leaders Lie, John Mearsheimer has similarly extrapolated outward from specific cases, taking to heart Hannah Arendt’s famous maxim that “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues” and creating a veritable catalog of recent justifications for lying in office. According to Mearsheimer, a foreign policy expert, lying in interstate relations is actually considerably less prevalent, or dangerous, or even frowned upon, than might otherwise be assumed. More worrisome is when elected leaders spread falsehoods about international affairs and engage in fear-mongering on the home front, as happened during the Bush years. Such lies produce not only political debacles, Mearsheimer asserts, but also a culture of dishonesty in which trust in policy-makers and, potentially, democratic governance is undermined.
In a presidential election year such as the present one, however, we tend to fixate on deceptions of a different sort: the lies told by candidates rather than by those already securely in power, misrepresentations of self rather than of the world at large. And this year’s presidential aspirants have already provided a bumper crop for our consideration. In Newt Gingrich we had, for a few months, a prime example of the kind of political dishonesty that is easiest to expose: “serial hypocrisy” (as Ron Paul labeled it), or preaching one thing on the campaign trail and practicing another in private life. Exhibit A could be Gingrich on the stump earlier this year excoriating the profligacy of Freddie Mac, the very mortgage giant that had recently paid him handsomely for his work as a consulting “historian.” Exhibit B, in a shift from financial to libidinous hypocrisy, might well be Gingrich’s attempt as speaker of the House to impeach then-President Bill Clinton over sexual indiscretions committed in the White House—even as Gingrich was quietly cheating on wife No. 2 by sleeping with his own very junior staffer, soon to become wife No. 3.
Personal hypocrisy, though, is just one type of dishonesty common among politicians, and perhaps not the most worrisome. As David Runciman argues in Political Hypocrisy, there is a special kind of dishonesty associated with misrepresenting oneself entirely in one’s political capacity. Is there a better model of this type than the flip-flopping, shape-shifting Mitt Romney, who eagerly denies responsibility both for his past accomplishments and his past positions, thus leaving the public mystified as to who—if anyone—the politician might be, or which of his many contradictory statements count as true? Earlier this year, while moving hard to the right, Romney eagerly shed the positions he’d held as a former healthcare-reforming governor of Massachusetts. Lately he’s been busy reversing course, insisting that he’s always been in favor of government subsidies for student loans despite his earlier statements to the contrary, and arguing that he deserves a large share of the intellectual credit for bailing out the auto industry, despite having written a New York Times op-ed called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
Yet Runciman is careful not to suggest that hypocrisy is the particular vice of any one segment of the political spectrum. He describes a very similar set of lies that figured in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, paying special attention to Hillary Clinton as an über-hypocrite—before praising her particular form of hypocrisy (having a totally phony public persona, but knowing it) over that of her husband (as a sincere and thus self-deceiving liar). Moreover, Runciman’s scorn for politicians passing off foregone political decisions as the result of personal agonizing—not to mention complex ethical problems as morally obvious—would seem made to fit President Obama’s recent calculated declarations on gay marriage.
The prevalence of deception may be the great irony of democratic politics. A foundational principle of liberal democracies such as the United States is that, unlike totalitarian states, they require transparency, accountability, and trust between representatives and the represented—not the webs of secrecy and lies characteristic of authoritarian regimes past or present. Or at least such has been the claim since the eighteenth century. Yet politicians and elected officials rank right up there with used-car salesmen in terms of the public’s confidence in their words, especially when boasting of their own honesty and integrity. And lying—meaning an intentional deception of one sort or other, whether through phrases, gestures, actions, or even inactions and silences—seems to be more prevalent in politics than in almost any other area of public life, with the possible exception of advertising. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street started from the premise that politics has become, a few exceptional figures to the contrary, one big, immoral con. This is a sentiment with deep roots in the well-documented corruptions of the Vietnam War and the Watergate era, and even deeper roots in the suspicions about power written into America’s original political creed. We may well know rationally that fraudulent language and behavior are no more prevalent in contemporary America than anywhere else or at any other time; Machiavelli, after all, wrote the book on successful political lying in sixteenth-century Florence. Overt mendacity may actually be harder to get away with now than in the past given the rise in scrutiny of public figures. But as Runciman points out, political hypocrisy is often identified today—especially by hypocrites around the world—as a peculiarly modern American vice.
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Moralists tend to see every political lie, no matter how minor, as an ethical crime. Either it compromises the integrity of the individual in question, or it undermines democratic values and fosters a culture of deception and mistrust. As Mearsheimer points out, to accuse someone of lying in our contemporary ethical climate is so strong an allegation that euphemisms (think of “less than forthcoming” or “not entirely straightforward”) are often used to intimate that a person is being dishonest. Cynics, by contrast, are not flustered by the likes of Gingrich, Romney or Bill Clinton, seeing the lying politician as the embodiment of a fundamental truth about politics. Jay repeats the classic joke of the political realist: “How can you tell when a politician is lying? He moves his lips.” Then there are a few contrarian intellectuals—among them Mearsheimer, Runciman and Jay—who, despite their shared outrage at the Bush administration’s deceptive, top-down fearmongering, insist that not all types of lying are alike. Moreover, tolerance for a little political mendacity, especially of the right kind, may not be such a bad thing when you consider the alternative: a politics of coercive truth-telling and sincerity, of little red books, groupthink and purges.
To make the case, Runciman and Jay start from the position that there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, they both offer extended histories not of lying in politics (which, as Mearsheimer points out, only comes to our attention when it fails to convince), but of high-minded reflections on lying in politics. In keeping with their contrarian approach, however, they also catalog the sheer variety of the kinds of lies, functions of lies and conceptions about lying before making a utilitarian case for the benefits of mendacity in certain circumstances. Their aim is to make this argument without falling back on the anti-democratic, Straussian position that each of them rejects (but that Jay alone explicates): the people don’t always know what’s in their best interests, and some lies from on high are actually perpetrated for the people’s own good, not the least of which is maintaining public order.